How memes are boosting Ukraine's fundraising efforts

LVIV, Ukraine — Christian Borys was at home in Toronto in February, trying to find a way to help Ukrainians threatened by war, when he d...


LVIV, Ukraine — Christian Borys was at home in Toronto in February, trying to find a way to help Ukrainians threatened by war, when he decided to print stickers of an internet meme: the Virgin Mary hoisting a anti-tank missile.

Mr Borys, who had worked for e-commerce platform Shopify before turning to journalism, said he set up a website in half an hour, hoping to raise money to send to a charity for Ukrainian orphans. That night, he made $88 CAD in sales. By the time he added t-shirts in late February, the threat of war had morphed into a full-scale invasion, and he said sales had risen to C$170,000 a day – most of it coming from the states -United.

“The internet is all about memes and it’s become this crazy, viral sensation,” he said. “I think it’s because people were looking for a symbol of support, a way to support Ukraine, because they saw the whole injustice of everything.”

Images such as Ukrainian tractors towing a broken down Russian tank and helicopter, although unverified, have not only helped to combat Russian misinformation, but have also helped support Ukrainian charities and even the Ukrainian military.

The merchandise sales they generated in the United States and elsewhere are surprising given that many people buying the t-shirts, stickers, coffee mugs and candy bars would never have thought of the land of Eastern Europe before the conflict.

Mr Borys’ site, Saint Javelin, has so far raised almost $1.5 million to help the Ukrainian charity Help uswhich has branched out into several services, and providing protective equipment for journalists covering the war, he said.

“I think this is unprecedented,” said Peter Dickinson, editor of the UkraineAlert service at the Atlantic Council, speaking of the support generated by the Internet. “We have to keep in mind that this is also a technological question, that we are at the point where the tools are in place.”

When Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the invasion received far less attention in the West. This time, President Biden’s warning in mid-February that Russia was days away from invading Ukraine drew thousands of reporters and the news grabbed the headlines.

“Russia had managed in the past to release all sorts of information about Ukraine because no one really knew much about Ukraine,” Mr Dickinson said. “It was like a blank slate.”

That quickly changed from February, when Ukraine was seen as the clear underdog against a much more powerful invader. Crowdfunding efforts have emerged — raise millions of dollars for the Ukrainian armyincluding through cryptocurrency – as European allies failed to send more weapons into the country to avoid inflaming fighting.

Today, the overwhelming public image of Ukraine, reinforced by memes and merchandise, is that of a brave country that, against all odds, is turning the tide of war.

“This is the spirit of our fight and our struggle,” said Taras Maselko, the apparel company’s marketing director. Aviatsia Halychyny, which sells t-shirts in a category called “Fight Like Ukrainians”. Mr. Maselko said six times as many orders came from outside the country as from inside Ukraine.

“You know, if you’re wearing a t-shirt, if you read something on social media, it brings you to the reality of what’s happening in Ukraine,” he said.

The clothing brand’s biggest seller is a T-shirt with the now famous, profane answer that Ukrainian border guards at Snake Island, a Black Sea outpost, gave to a Russian warship that had ordered him and his unit to surrender.

The answer is a profanity rallying call, posted on billboards in Ukraine and chanted by children and their parents at protests outside the country.

This week, the Ukrainian postal service unveiled a stamp depicting a Ukrainian Navy special forces operator with his middle finger raised towards the warship. She plans to launch a website to sell the stamps, coffee mugs and other merchandise.

the A Russian warship, the Moskva, sank on Thursday after Ukraine fired Neptune missiles at it, according to US officials. The Russian government denied it was attacked and said it was disabled when a fire broke out.

The head of the Ukrainian post called the stamp “a symbol of the courage and indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people in the fight against Russia”.

The post office prints one million stamps and sells them at face value, the equivalent of less than a dollar each, its director, Igor Smelyansky, said in an interview.

He said some people reselling the stamps for much more had pledged to donate the proceeds to the Ukrainian military. But Mr Smelyansky, who is Ukrainian-American, said the opportunity to demoralize Russia was priceless.

“As a postal service, we are always happy when the recipient receives the message,” he said.

Humor in adversity is deeply rooted in Ukrainian culture. Before being elected president three years ago, President Volodymyr Zelensky was an actor. A famous Russian painting depicts the Cossacks of Zaporozhian, in what is now Ukraine, laughing out loud as they write a rude letter to the sultan of the 17th century Ottoman Empire who demanded that they submit to him.

In this time of war, shops in the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine, sell chocolate bars with images of Mr. Zelensky. Another has the president’s adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, portrayed as a TV sitcom character saying, “Everything will be fine.”

Aviatsiya Hallychyny, the clothing company, moved its factory from eastern Ukraine to Lviv after the invasion. Profits from the t-shirt line are sent to the Ukrainian Air Force, with around $70,000 raised so far, according to Maselko.

Three weeks ago, Borys, a Polish-Ukrainian Canadian, transformed Saint Javelin from an all-volunteer effort into a full-time staff of four to meet demand.

Her website has spanned from the Virgin Mary to other saints: Saint Carl Gustaf wears a gas mask, while “Saint Olha, the warrior queen of kyiv” wears a crown and hoists a bazooka over her camouflaged shoulders.

“People on Instagram are demanding that we do big things,” Borys said. “We’re getting messages from people in Spain saying, ‘Hey, we just shipped the C-90,’ a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher,” he said. “And they’ll say, ‘Hey, we want a saint for Spain,’ or a saint specific to that type of system.”

The Virgin Mary, dressed in blue and gold robes and holding a javelin, is an image adapted from a painting by the American artist Chris Shaw. Mr. Shaw based this painting on earlier work in 2012 with the Madonna holding a Kalashnikov rifle.

Mr. Borys acknowledges that some people may find the image blasphemous.

“People are certainly offended, but the vast, vast majority of people see what this actually means,” he said. “Religious symbolism has been used in warfare for hundreds of years. To say it’s blasphemous is to misunderstand the reality of war and how people seek symbols of support.

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Newsrust - US Top News: How memes are boosting Ukraine's fundraising efforts
How memes are boosting Ukraine's fundraising efforts
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